Howard family: Sale of land near Chimney Rock fulfills Gordon Howard’s dream

November 16, 2018

BAYARD — When Gordon Howard heard the land near Chimney Rock National Historic Site was going to be sold as property for housing, it didn’t sit right with him. He was determined to preserve the land. Years later, the family has made sure it will be preserved, fulfilling Gordon’s dream.

The parcel of land, which was purchased by the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation from the Gordon Howard family on Thursday, lies between Chimney Rock and the Abbott Visitor Center.

At the bank with members of the Howard family, there was as much reminiscing as business. Paperwork needed to be signed, but being at the bank brought up fond memories of Gordon, including when Gordon had learned of the plans to plat the property. Gordon approached the owners and asked how much they wanted for the property. He went to the bank and spoke to Hod Kosman, of Platte Valley Bank. Kosman asked how much Gordon had for a down payment.

“Dad reached into his pocket and laid a dime on the table,” said Dan Howard, Gordon’s son. “He said, ‘This is how much I’ve got.’”

Kosman said he couldn’t loan Gordon such a large amount of money on a dime. Gordon said, “Yes, you can. Your family is on the board.”

Gordon convinced the bank to give him a loan.

“They believed in dad and that he was worth the risk,” Dan said. “The property and his vision for it was worth the risk.”

Dan said the bank had a lot of heart and understanding, for which he is thankful for. Immediately after Dan told the story and the deal was done, Kosman reached into his pocket and said, “Here’s the dime,” and gave it to Gordon’s wife, Patty.

The Howards gathered together again Thursday afternoon at Chimney Rock to share memories of Gordon and to celebrate the transfer of land from the family to the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation. The preservation of the land during the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail was a fitting moment in time to remember the work Howard did to promote tourism and preserve history in western Nebraska.

“It’s a weighty responsibility and this is a special day for us,” said Trevor Jones, executive director, History Nebraska, “How often do you get to do something that will outlast you and preserve it for all Nebraskans?”

Leslie Fattig, executive director, Nebraska State Historical Society, said whenever she visits Chimney Rock, she imagines all the people who traveled across the prairie and how difficult it must have been.

“Everyone loves Chimney Rock,” Fattig said. “It’s a symbol for all.”

Dan called Jones in January and told him Gordon was ill. They were interested in selling some of the property. Initial talks included irrigated land, but the 500 acres was too much. Over several months of negotiation, 360 acres were agreed upon for $400,000. The foundation received a $125,000 grant from the Dillon Foundation to put toward the cost of the land and a grant application has been filed with the Nebraska Environmental Trust. Fattig is hopeful they will receive the grant.

Stories were plentiful during the afternoon, including the time when Gordon had the opportunity to fly in a helicopter that was taking pictures of the trails between Scottsbluff and Torrington, Wyoming. He asked if they would take him over Chimney Rock. As the helicopter came close, Gordon looked down. It was close enough for him to put his foot on it. A man in the helicopter grabbed him and stopped Gordon. If he had, Gordon would have upset the rotors’ balance and they would have crashed.

“He’s probably the only man to have ever gotten that close to the top,” said Patty Howard, Gordon’s wife.

Dan retold the story of how his father had a tattoo of Chimney Rock on his tooth. He enjoyed showing people his unique crown. Gordon had a callus on his lip from showing his crown so often.

“Over the years, as he chewed on it, it wore away,” Dan said. “He said, ‘Yep, that’s what’s happening to Chimney Rock.’”

Fattig said Chimney Rock is meaningful for the local community, Nebraskans and everyone in the world. With the agreements signed, the land as it is now will always remain that way.

“When the family were telling their stories, we all had tears,” said Trixie Schmidt, president of the Nebraska State Historical Society Foundation. “We know how important this land is to the family.”

The land is sandy and filled with buffalo grass. It will remain that way forever. Fattig said the foundation takes pride in the fact that the property will be here so generations to come can appreciate this land and its meaning.

“History is happening now for future generations,” Schmidt said.

Patty said she is pleased with the way things have turned out. She said Gordon would be happy, too, because his original vision was to preserve the land. For Gordon and Patty, the historical society was the only group of which they could have ever thought of selling the land.

“That was always in the back of our mind,” Patty said. “They’re so involved in preservation that no other thought ever came up.”

Dan said the day’s events were a follow through of what his parents envisioned so many years ago.

“We honor mom and dad today and appreciate the passion of the people who work here,” Dan said. “We are thankful to all of you for carrying on dad’s vision.”

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